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Legacy of Beijing Olympics will transcend athletics

By Evan Osnos | Tribune correspondent
8:00 PM CDT, August 9, 2008

BEIJING - Even before nightfall on the first day of competition, the Beijing Olympics appeared destined for a legacy that reaches beyond the bounds of athletics.

Olympic authorities and Chinese leaders Saturday confronted the challenge of conveying a delicate balance between solemn grief and confident control after an attack at a Beijing landmark left one American tourist dead and another wounded, along with their Chinese guide.

As investigators dug for clues into what motivated the Chinese assailant, who took his own life after the attack at the Drum Tower south of the Olympic green, the violent incident added to a volatile mix of sports, politics, patriotism and protest already swirling around the Games.

Early Sunday, several explosions were reported in China's western region of Xinjiang, killing at least two people and seriously injuring several others, state media reported. Xinhua news agency said said gunshots were heard after the blasts and that troops had been deployed to the area.

In the weeks to come, these factors are likely to congeal into one of two scenarios: China recovers from the first-day tragedy to rack up medals, keeps other spectators safe and happy and closes the Olympics with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Or Chinese athletes do their best under intense pressure, controversies simmer over safety, pollution and human rights, and China closes the Olympics under a cloud of bitterness and confusion.

Either version -- or some combination, more likely -- will have broad consequences for the U.S. and other countries. How China feels about itself, and how the world feels about China, when the Games conclude could shape Beijing's posture on human rights, climate change and other international issues.

"If the management of the Games goes well, I think it will have a positive effect on China's global diplomacy and confidence of the government. It will probably make them more receptive to international cooperation and multilateralism," professor David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, said shortly before the Saturday attack.

"Conversely, if the government receives a lot of negative media coverage and the Games are mismanaged, or there is an incident, it will only fuel the more xenophobic and less cooperative elements in the Chinese government."

China is well aware of the stakes. Xu Wu, a former journalist who teaches at Arizona State University, advised the Chinese government on public relations in the run-up to the Games. In a presentation to senior officials, he forecast severalscenarios during the Games that could have a lasting effect on foreign relations, including: a foreign team booed by Chinese fans, for instance, or Beijing pollution interfering with competition, or foreign athletes encountering hostile crowds outside stadiums if they make politicized statements.

"If this becomes a Chinese nightmare," Wu said, "it will spread over to the world and become an international nightmare because China will feel humiliated and this will add to that suffering."

The Olympics are a gamble for everyone involved: for the International Olympic Committee, which staked its reputation on holding China to promises of a spectacular, transparent and inclusive Olympics; for foreign governments, which bet that the Beijing Games would make China a more cooperative player in international affairs, and, above all, for China's government, which is opening its doors wider than ever before with the hope that a China the world knows is better than the China it does not.

None of those is a sure bet.

Even before the attack on foreigners, China and the world were already exchanging volleys of positive and negative messages. President George W. Bush rejected calls to boycott the Opening Ceremony and thereby delivered China one of its most coveted political symbols. But he tempered that as soon as he stepped onto Chinese soil Friday with an appeal to his hosts to "let people say what they think." Scattered protests continue to flare in Beijing and Hong Kong over controls on the media and Beijing's control of Tibet.

Though none of these is a surprise to China's leadership, several experts on China's elite decision-making say the sheer relentlessness of the criticism over human rights is likely to trigger high-level discussion of just how important the issue really is to China's image.

Traditionally, Chinese citizens and policy makers have interpreted human-rights criticism to be only partly sincere. They attribute it more directly to power politics, in which foreign governments use human rights as an excuse to block China's global influence.

That internal perception could be changing, said Minxin Pei, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"China will feel very defensive about the human rights issue and, if anything, it will start paying more attention to this issue and why this issue has attracted so much criticism from the rest of the world," Pei said.

Beyond human rights, the U.S. depends on China's cooperation for some of the most pivotal security challenges of the day: the continued nuclear disarmament of North Korea, building international pressure to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions, forcing the government of Sudan to end the genocide in its Darfur region. In addition, the U.S. is seeking Beijing's cooperation on curbing carbon emissions, revaluing the yuan, and reducing the U.S. trade deficit with China.

China has shown that it can turn its cooperation on or off at will. Shortly after filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who was helping design Olympic ceremonies, appealed last year to China do more to end violence in Darfur, Beijing announced plans to send a team of engineers to aid peace efforts in Sudan. China later signed on to a UN Security Council decision to send peacekeepers to Darfur. But China's efforts have met muted reactions overseas, and, indeed, Spielberg later pulled out, saying China did not go far enough.

The Olympic effect on perception runs both ways, however. And the world's image of China could also change in ways that shape its foreign relations.

"The greatest potential change in China's international situation may not be its orientation to the world but the world's orientation to it," said Derek Mitchell, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Over the next 15 days, the world will be bombarded by more images of China -- both positive and negative -- than any time since the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The image left behind could be defined by political openness, architectural splendor and a non-threatening patriotic fervor. Or, it could be a very different impression.

"Should conditions in Beijing, both in human rights and air-quality terms, continue to be poor," Mitchell said, "China's ambition to be an `attractive' nation with `soft power' legitimacy ... will take a hit, even in the developing world.",1440980.story

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